I should preface this review by stating that I’m only just halfway through reading this book. As far as I am concerned, the year is 1943, and the possibility of the Axis Powers losing the war is looking to become a reality, as the Allies start thinking about what shape the post-war world will be. So, nobody tell me how it ends.
Everyone likes to think they have this War figured out. The attraction to reading history is often with the obsession with the detail – as if knowing how Churchill took his tea, what precise models of tanks fought at Kursk, the squadron numbers of Zero fighters used in New Guinea, would somehow leave you with a deeper appreciation of history. And it’s true that sometimes, those details have a role in affecting history.
The trouble with taking such forensic interests is that you often fail to understand the bigger picture, which can dictate why such details are important, leading to second- and third-order assumptions from the reader that have little bearing in reality. Alternative History Fiction (which is still awesome, by the way) can be rife with this, leaving readers with the idea that momentum is unimportant, so long as a single event possibly changing the entire outcome of the war.
The enjoyment of reading Antony Beevor’s The Second World War (published in 2012 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson) comes from having the events of the conflict strung together so that the reader knows why the detail is important, and appreciates its truly global nature. Having considerable background in writing about the individual campaigns of the war such as the Battles of Stalingrad, Crete, and Berlin, Beevor plies his trade at telling the story of individual campaigns, but in a narrative where the reader understands how events affected one another – all over the world. For example, I never quite appreciated quite how the international powers sought to influence the Sino-Japanese War until now.
Beevor still manages to show his talent is for weaving detail amongst the bigger picture, and it makes for some heavy reading. There’s entertaining quips (my favourite: a British soldier in North Africa, asked how many POWs he’s taken, and replying “Oh, I’d say a few acres worth”). But in a conflict where so many lost their lives, there’s some harrowing chapters, especially when names are given. The conflict witnessed a wholesale loss of human life that will cause you some despair for the human race.
As a historical reading and learning experience, The Second World War is still rewarding, and reading about the conflict through a whole-of-events narrative has ironically inspired me to go seek out the details of campaigns and individual personalities in other books. Beevor can’t address every campaign in only 800 pages, and sometimes this is to a fault, as subject matter important to the war goes largely ignored.
Beevor’s other talent is for making the information digestible, and again, the curious details matter here. But even he struggles to clearly convey some events and relationships – which is, admittedly, not necessarily his fault as the historian. Take the French, for example. The social and government disarray of France going into the German invasion is clear and surprisingly understandable, but the soap opera relationships that come with the Free French and Vichy is complicated to a fault – and fundamentally does little to affect the war (considering other events). On the other hand, the clash of personalities between the Allies is kept simple, understandable, and reasonably entertaining.
Having sat on my ‘to read’ shelf the past year or two, I made a start on The Second World War during a work trip this year. Since then, it’s become a 1.7kg weight that I carry in my backpack everywhere, and when the mood and opportunity strikes, gives me the enjoyment of reading and learning. With each chapter I finish, there’s a satisfaction that comes from knowing that I’ll probably re-read this book again every five to ten years to remind myself of just what the world went through.